Tuesday, January 24, 2006

KBT Presents: SHA PO LANG (aka SPL)

Sha Po Lang, or SPL for short, is a welcome throw-back to the heady days of Hong Kong Action Cinema emerging onto the world scene. It is a pleasure to see the big old melodrama, prominently used in John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled as well as Ringo Lam's City on Fire, back in full form. Even better, director Wilson Yip marries that classic melodrama to more sophisticated camera work, faster action choreography and a stunning visual palette. All of this adds up to the best film shown in this years Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness Program and the best Hong Kong cop action-thriller since Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs.

Sha, Po and Lang are three Chinese constellations which represent destruction, conflict and greed. Those qualities set up the Leone-esque show-down between the Good, The Bad, and the Corrupt. An investigative taskforce of the Hong Police Department are at war with underworld gang boss Wang Po (played to maximum effect by long-time veteran Sammo Hung). The head of the taskforce, Inspector Chan (Simon Yam) is Godfather to a child who lost her parents in an incident involving the gang. He is being forced into retirement because of health problems, and has his team turning to illegal methods such as evidence planting and video tape alteration to get a conviction to stick on Po. It seems in the past, Po keeps getting his lawyers to beat whatever charges they lay. Things get complicated as the new Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen) comes to take over the team, which is now waist deep in serious lies. The cops are doing corrupt things in the hopes of achieving a good end, but Ma has had a rough past, and is playing things by the book these days. This brings a fair bit of tension into the police dynamic of the film, with a lot of tough-guy chest thumping and male bonding.

The bulk of the film takes place on a Father’s Day in the late 1990s, and the melodrama is amped up by phone calls and meetings and phone calls between the police officers (as well as Wang Po) with their children in between action sequences. Yip is not afraid to walk the line of questionable taste by bringing children and babies into the high-stakes war between the cops and gangsters.

But where SPL really shines is in the action sequences. There are not that many of them, and they don't come until after the 45 minute mark (barring a couple teases), but they are so fine. Yen and newcomer Jing Wu tear up the screen in a knife/baton fight that absolutely begs to be rewound and re-watched over and over again. It’s lightning fast and done in long, coherent takes (something which is often lacking in action cinema, even in Asian martial arts flicks, these days). But the capital kicker sequence involves icons Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung (both of whom have worked as fight choreographers in the past, and adlib a good chunk of this fight). These two masters tear an upscale bar apart in a visceral fight scene which involves martial arts, grapples, fist fighting and maybe a WWE move or two.
SPL is slick and stylish, uncompromisingly nihilistic with little humour, excepting a very nice gag involving Po’s cellular ringtone and the occasional Sammo Hung act of extreme coolness. For fans of the genre SPL is an absolute MUST SEE -- In fact, it is a milestone.


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